Phil Giunta is a talented, prolific writer, one I've had the pleasure of publishing ("Bottom of the Hour" in A Plague of Shadows) and we've shared space in two anthologies (Beach Nights and Beach Pulps). He is now delving into the realm of self-publishing and has recently published the second edition of his debut novel, Testing the Prisoner. I was curious about the content of the book and the process Phil used to write it, as well as his experience as a first-time self-publisher. He welcomed the following interview.
I just finished your novel, Testing the Prisoner. Can you explain the meaning of the title in light of the book's content?
For many people who experience trauma, especially at an early age, it could take years or decades before they come to peace with it. Childhood trauma has the potential to "rewire" your brain, which affects your self-esteem, your outlook on life, your reactions, your ability to cultivate relationships, and more. In that case, you're a prisoner of your trauma, and that is true for Daniel Masenda, the protagonist in this novel. Throughout the story, a demonic character puts Daniel through a test to see if he will either relent to his repressed bitterness and rage or overcome it and make the right choice in the end. Hence, Testing the Prisoner.
Was the novel cathartic for you?
I wish I could say so, but it would take another decade after the book was published before I came to peace with my past and felt comfortable discussing my experiences on the receiving end of abuse and its lifelong effects including chronic depression and anxiety, which plague me to this day.
Over the past fifteen years, partly as a result of social media, I've been relieved to see the stigma around trauma and mental illness fading such that more people feel as open to speaking about these topics as they do about physical illnesses.
How much research was required as you wrote the book?
The psychic-medium character, Miranda Lorensen, was loosely based on a friend and former co-worker who possesses such abilities. I asked her occasional questions about her experiences communicating with the other side and some of those were incorporated into the novel, but embellished for drama.
Aside from that, most of the story was a combination of personal experiences and fictional events.
This is the second edition. How much revision was required for the second publication?
I trimmed 16,000 words out of the story for the second edition and rewrote a few scattered scenes, bringing the word count back to what it was when I finished the second or third draft before letting critique partners and beta readers loose on it.
At the time, in 2007, I was already an experienced short story writer, so I tended to write lean and still do. This was my first novel and it weighed in at approximately 50K words until I allowed myself to be persuaded by critique partners, beta readers, and editors that the novel needed more of this, that, and other things. Some of the advice was valid, but much was not. Having gained experience as both a writer and editor since then, I took the opportunity to revisit Testing the Prisoner in 2023, trim it back down, and create the definitive edition. While the novel earned excellent reviews from day one, I'm pleased to see this new edition is performing even better.
Why did you decide to self-publish?
The original publisher, Firebringer Press, closed shop in 2021. At that point, I decided to republish the three paranormal mystery novels that I had released through them between 2009 and 2018. This was also the perfect opportunity to review and revise them.
After years of working with various small presses, I learned much about the mechanics of publishing a book from interior layout for print and ebook to the various distribution options (i.e., Amazon, Draft2Digital, Ingram Spark, etc.). I knew I would need to outsource cover art and layout, but I had someone in mind immediately, which leads to the next question.
How did you decide on the cover? Who provided the art?
The previous edition's cover depicted objects, specifically a cross and a revolver. These are elements that represent facets of Daniel's upbringing. Given the amount of editing that went into the second edition—and the fact it was to be published under a new imprint—I felt it necessary to give the book a facelift. I wanted cover art akin to a movie poster.
At a comic con many moons ago, I shared a dealer table with artist Scott Barnett who had just released a self-published comic book called Dead Man's Party with writer Jeff Marsick. Scott's art impressed me and knew I'd someday tap him for a cover. We connected on Facebook and when the time came for the second edition of Testing the Prisoner, Scott was seeking commissions. When I described the story to him over a Zoom call in 2022, he instantly conjured an image of Daniel cringing in mental anguish, which became the core of the cover. He then added the other main characters around that.
As of this writing, Scott is finishing the cover to By Your Side, my second paranormal mystery novel from 2012. The new edition is due out in April of this year.
What were your obstacles/considerations when self-publishing?
The most prominent obstacle was fear. I never wanted the hassle of being a publisher. I much prefer to write and submit stories to others. Maintaining a writing career while holding down a high-stress, full-time job takes enormous time and energy and often leaves me burned out. Adding all the tasks and expenses necessary to self-publish a book filled me with dread. Nevertheless, I knew there was no other way to keep these novels viable.
Over the years, I'd also learned of various small press and indie publishing awards, and I wanted to give my books a shot at some of these. As of this writing, I'm pleased to announce Testing the Prisoner was a finalist in the American Book Fest 2023 Best Book Awards (horror category) and is up for two more awards, the results of which should be announced this spring.
What is your prime advice for an author contemplating self-publishing?
The best feature of self-publishing is that you have control over everything. The drawback is you are also responsible for everything, including the costs. Do your research to determine the best and most affordable ways to format, publish, distribute, and promote your book, and that includes avoiding scams. Writer Beware (https://writerbeware.blog) is an excellent resource for this.
Thanks, Phil! For more on Phil and his work, check out his website at https://www.philgiunta.com.